James Kelly was just hoping to retrieve a discarded donut from the trash. But the homeless Houston man was served a ticket instead.
The Navy veteran was cited on March 7 for “disturbing the contents of a garbage can,” because he had been rummaging through the bin for something to eat, KPRC reports. Outraged activists have stepped forward to support Kelly, including the ACLU, which is going to represent him in court, free of charge.
“Anybody that desires to see someone else go hungry, just has no heart,” Kelly told KPRC.
The statute that prohibits people from digging through the trash has been around since 1942 and supporters say it’s critical in keeping the streets clean, the Houston Chronicle Reported. Most officers say that they wouldn’t cite someone for taking food from a dumpster, though.
"I know on the face of it, it sounds very cruel," Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, told the Chronicle. "It's not officers being inhumane. It's police officers responding to citizens' complaints about someone removing garbage from their garbage can, and leaving it on the ground. It's creating a mess."
But this incident reeks of another legal issue that advocates are calling foul.
Last year, the Houston City Council ruled that people can’t publicly feed the homeless without the consent of property owners and the city.
The law poses risks for both those living on the streets and activists trying to feed those in need. The maximum penalty for people who violate the law is a misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine, a penalty many nonprofits simply can’t afford, the Daily Caller reported.
Despite the risks, many homeless advocates say they are willing to take their chances in order to keep people from going hungry.
“I have never been one to break the law,” Amber Rodriguez, executive director of Noah’s Kitchen in Houston, told the Daily Caller. “But if I see people who need food, I am going to feed them.”
As activists continue to go to bat for Kelly, and other homeless people in similar predicaments, they may find some comfort in the way other cities have handled controversial homeless legislation.
Back in August of last year, a federal judge blocked Philadelphia Mayor Nutter’s proposed ban of feeding homeless people along a major parkway, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
"It hardly needs to be said that plaintiffs' food-sharing programs benefit the public interest," District Judge William H. Yohn Jr., wrote. "Despite [the city's] considerable efforts, many Philadelphians remain homeless and hungry."